School boards group eyes changes after school choice battle

Travis Pillow
Members of the Florida School Boards Association raise placards and vote to leave the lawsuit challenging the state's tax credit scholarship program.

Members of the Florida School Boards Association vote to leave the lawsuit challenging tax credit scholarships.

After pulling out of a lawsuit challenging Florida’s largest private school choice program, the group that represents the state’s school boards is looking to turn over a new leaf.

In the months after a lawsuit was filed challenging Florida’s largest private school choice program, the Florida School Boards Association saw would-be leaders beaten in elections, a group of pro-school choice members form a rival organization, and legislation that would have limited lawsuits by associations that receive public funds.

The day before the association’s board of directors voted leave the suit, a majority of Indian River School Board members agreed to leave the association.

“We didn’t realize how divisive it was going to be,” said Patty Hightower, who became the FSBA’s president after some of its leaders lost school board seats in last year’s elections. “It was very divisive and hopefully we can move forward.” Caroline Zucker, who succeeded Hightower as president, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune the conflict over the lawsuit had been “disruptive” and that she hoped the organization could renew its focus on things like member training.

By the time it wrapped up its annual gathering in Tampa last week, the association had not only put the lawsuit behind it, but introduced members to a new executive director and launched a strategic planning process Hightower said could lead to a retooling of the organization.

Jason Fischer, a school board member from Duval County and one of the earliest members of an emergent faction of pro-school choice school board members, said his disagreements with the association went beyond the lawsuit. “They still have the belief system and the platform against choice,” he said, pointing to its legislative agenda.

Hightower said the organization’s members shape its positions, and she hoped the school choice supporters, who remain a distinct minority, could find a way to work within it. She added the FSBA, which saw its longtime leader, Wayne Blanton, retire earlier this year, is beginning a review of its operations that could bring more changes.

It’s become commonplace for school boards to hire their own lobbyists in Tallahassee, she said. The association could focus its policy work on consensus issues that affect all school districts, and on educating its members about things like the intricacies of school funding formulas.

She said the group might also consider allowing school board members join as individuals. Under the current system, boards join collectively. The Escambia County School Board, where Hightower serves, debated that issue earlier this year, but the member who opposed the FSBA was overruled.

Such a change could also give members like Claudia Jimenez, an Indian River board member who supported the association but was outnumbered by her peers when the issue came up last week, a way to remain involved.

As the association’s board debated pulling out of the lawsuit, Jimenez told her colleagues, “We can’t afford to lose more board memberships in our organization, because we still have a lot of work to do.”

One member of Indian River’s board, Dale Simchick, wrote a letter in her local paper opposing the lawsuit. Other groups supporting the suit are expected to decide this week whether to appeal a judge’s ruling dismissing the case.

Simchick said the lawsuit prompted her to scrutinize the FSBA, but she soon began to question why the board was paying thousands of dollars in dues to other membership organizations, like the Greater Florida Consortium of School Boards.

Shawn Frost, another Indian River board member and an early backer of a separate association for school board members, said the talk of change suggests the dissidents are having an impact.

“This little uprising, this coalition, is changing the conversation within the FSBA,” he said.

Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post, helps administer the tax credit scholarship program.

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